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Archive for March 10th, 2008

dignity without dignity, stage without an exit

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From the introduction of J. M. Coetzee’s Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (1997)

Innocence is a state in which we try to maintain our children; dignity is a state we claim for ourselves. Affronts to the innocence of our children or to the dignity of our persons are attacks not upon our essential being but upon constructs—constructs by which we live, but constructs nevertheless. This is not to say that affronts to innocence or dignity are not real affronts, or that the outrage with which we respond to them is not real, in the sense of not being sincerely felt. The infringements are real; what is infringed, however, is not our essence but a foundational fiction to which we more or less wholeheartedly subscribe, a fiction that may well be indispensable for a just society, namely, that human beings have a dignity that sets them apart from animals and consequently protects them from being treated like animals. (It is even possible that we may look forward to a day when animals will have their own dignity ascribed to them, and the ban will be reformulated as a ban on treating a living creature like a thing.)

The fiction of dignity helps to define humanity and the status of humanity helps to define human rights. There is thus a real sense in which an affront to our dignity strikes at our rights. Yet when, outraged at such affront, we stand on our rights and demand redress, we would do well to remember how insubstantial the dignity is on which those rights are based. Forgetting where our dignity comes from, we may fall into a posture as comical as that of the irate censor.

Life, says Erasmus’s Folly, is theater: we each have lines to say and a part to play. One kind of actor, recognizing that he is in a play, will go on playing nevertheless; another kind of actor, shocked to find he is participating in an illusion, will try to step off the stage and out of the play. The second actor is mistaken. For there is nothing outside the theater, no alternative life one can join instead. The show is, so to speak, the only show in town. All one can do is to go on playing one’s part, though perhaps with a new awareness, a comic awareness.

We thus arrive at a pair of Erasmian paradoxes. A dignity worthy of respect is a dignity without dignity (which is quite different from unconscious or unaffected dignity); an innocence worthy of respect is an innocence without innocence. As for respect itself, it is tempting to suggest that this is a superfluous concept, though for the workings of the theater of life it may turn out to be indispensable. True respect is a variety of love and may be subsumed under love; to respect someone means, inter alia, to forgive that person an innocence that, outside the theater, would be false, a dignity that would be risible.

Dangerous and interesting this, more to come, and perhaps something on why I like the constructions X without Xs, Xwithout Y, etc quite as much as I do….

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 10, 2008 at 11:52 am

Posted in simplicity

socialism and the human animal

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From the NYTimes today:

Although Enrique Del Risco knows what has happened on the island where he was born 40 years ago, he still gets odd looks from college students when he tries to explain Cuba’s reality. He left Cuba in 1996 and settled in New York two years later, teaching Spanish at New York University.

“I grew up believing in the system,” he said. “Quite a believer. My parents, too.”

He, too, thought there would be change during the late 1980s. Instead, he found himself slowly suffocating, with his writings earning him reprimands.

“I was more scared of surrendering than being put in jail,” he said. “I was scared that I would stop being myself. I was someone who thinks independently and expresses that.” Yet to try and tell that to some of his students, he said, was like talking about extraterrestrial life. He knows to expect a dual riposte — yes, but what about universal health care and education?

“At the root of that is a great belittling of Cubans,” he said. “It’s like we are some sort of little animals who only need a veterinarian and someone to teach us tricks and we’ll be fine.”

Somewhat per the Badiou article I linked to the other day, it is amazing to note, when you at time step back a bit from the shuffle, how insistently if quietly we’re still negotiating this now only spectral question…

Is there a name for the rhetorical form that supplies answer upon answer to questions that can’t be (permitted to be) asked?

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 10, 2008 at 10:55 am